In our Sustainability 2017 report (now being updated for fall of 2019), we identified waste — specifically food waste — as an increasingly important topic to a wide range of consumers when asked about sustainability concerns. Fast Company drills down on food waste in a recent article (“There’s a $218 billion design problem sitting in your fridge right now”) and finds that food waste is a significant contributor to carbon emissions and climate change: Specifically, unstandardized and unclear expiration labels on food contribute to unnecessary waste; consumers throw food away prematurely, unsure if a product is fresh or safe to eat. The article describes how Brian Roe, an Ohio State University professor studying this issue, believes the solution lies in legislative regulation to give consumers a clear picture of what food labels mean. 

In 2017, the Food Marketing Institute and National Grocer Manufacturers made a joint statement suggesting a dual system of food expiration labeling that would indicate both quality and safety. However, efforts to formalize these recommendations have yet to succeed, as legislation has yet to move beyond Congress.

The focus on food and beverage expiration labels as a culprit in food waste is interesting: We believe that unambiguous, standardized labeling around expiration dates would undoubtedly alleviate confusion and help consumers minimize the foods they toss out. Apart from legislative developments, brands can also demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by helping empower consumers to minimize food waste through clearer labeling on their own products. Retailers and food service operators can appeal to consumer desires to avoid wasting food by focusing on the topic from the customer perspective. Consumers worry more about their own food waste first rather than that of companies, a concern driven in part by personal finances and the ideas of value.

As a sustainability issue with legs, food waste (as opposed to, say, “clothing waste”) is easier for a wider swath of consumers to grasp. Most still think first of their own garbage bins, but they can easily follow up with the idea of restaurants and retailers donating food. Those consumers who have experience working in food justice and hunger-related initiatives have more nuanced views. They understand that regulations prohibit some food giveaways, but they will also speak to managers and patronize businesses that do try to address the issue.

Although most consumers think first of their own food waste, they jump easily to food security, believing that restaurants and grocery stores should not throw food away when so many are hungry. Only the most knowledgeable, sustainably driven consumers connect food waste to industrial practices, but we should expect this awareness to grow as food waste becomes a more salient issue in the media.

To learn more about this issue, watch for insights from our upcoming Sustainability 2019 syndicated report.

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